How The Other Half Fly
When booking a recent trip, I noticed that I had amassed quite a few Virgin Australia Velocity points over the years. Virgin Australia had recently been pushing their business class services, maybe that was the reason why a business class seat to the Gold Coast was available for 13,800 points + $14.99.
Business class not only involves one of those enormous seats that I can usually only stare at with lust as I board the plane and make my way through to cattle class, but it also involves a free visit to the Virgin Australia lounge. Where everything is free!
I don’t mind telling you I’d been dreaming about the lounge almost as much as I’d been dreaming about the trip itself. I’d never seen the inside of an airline lounge before.
For passengers with hand luggage only, business class check in and security at Sydney Airport is via a special terminal entrance straight into the Virgin Australia lounge. There was no queue. Actually there were no other passengers at all. There were 3 members of staff at the check in desk and 3 security guards at my service, and of course I was so overcome with the sense of occasion that my very best posh English accent came out, just to make sure that they knew I was meant to be there. Didn’t stop one of the very polite security guards from swabbing my luggage and shoes for ‘explosives’ though. Perhaps he had a quota to meet.
First weird thing about the lounge, you can leave your bags at your table in here while you wander round picking up free stuff. I usually suffer from chronic handbag security paranoia, but even I felt safe leaving my bags here, and the staff didn’t start yelling out that unattended bags were a security risk and may be removed and destroyed. Second weird thing, there wasn’t any background music, or if there was I don’t remember any. Instead the TV was showing CNN Financial News, with the volume up, and quite a number of passengers were actually watching this intently.
This slightly less than entertaining choice of entertainment, coupled with the fact that most people in here didn’t really look like they were having fun, made the whole experience a bit lacking. I parked my bags at an empty table and experienced the third weird thing; ordering a premium beer at the bar and not being asked for payment. I could get used to this third weird thing, no problem.
The free food was in the form of a buffet with a good selection of salad items, breads, soup of the day, a curry with rice and all the trimmings, cheese, crackers and fruit. I couldn’t find any free reading material apart from financial magazines and airline magazines with lots of adverts for things that looked like a watch but were described as a ‘premium Swiss gentleman’s timepiece’, so I decided to settle in, with my iPod and book for company, to see how much I could eat and drink in an hour.
At the departure gate, I became one of those people who go through the express boarding lane. The boarding gate attendant ignored the economy queue and turned to give me her immediate attention. I know when I see people in this lane, I always think, why are they going through there? Why do they fly so often that they are a gold or platinum frequent flyer, or why do they spend so much money on big seats? Maybe I know the answer now. Maybe no one ever buys those seats; they just claim them with frequent flyer points once or twice in a lifetime.
The seat was, seriously, huge. The legroom was, seriously, huge. I could have slept comfortably for a night in the space my legs were now waving around in. The dedicated business class cabin attendant was so well trained and so naturally suited to the role that he lived up to every possible cabin attendant stereotype.
Rich people are apparently far less likely to hijack planes than normal people, because my welcome drink ‘would you like something to drink madam, a water or a mocktail perhaps’ was served in a real glass, made of actual, breakable, glass.
Trendy chef Luke Mangan designs the menus for Virgin Australia and I found his offerings for the short trip to the Gold Coast delightful but rather overdressed. The overly stereotypical cabin attendant announced after take off that he would soon be serving ‘a light snack of a cheese and tomato scroll’ and indeed that’s exactly what the savoury sector of the light snack consisted of. A delicious cheese and tomato scroll, of average single serve savoury pastry size, looking more than a little overpowered by its surroundings in the middle of a large purple plastic tray, accompanied by a full size, genuine stainless steel knife, fork and spoon, wrapped in a large heavy linen napkin.
To accompany my light snack, I requested a glass of white wine. Instead of the usual miniature bottle with a plastic cup, the cabin attendant helpfully advised me that he would be serving the 2011 Name-of-Some-Good-Wine-Place Un-Oaked Chardonnay and then a real actual breakable wine glass appeared and was filled with this lovely Chardonnay from a real glass bottle. This delightfully over-serviced meal finished with a perfect little passionfruit dessert, which finally gave me an opportunity to use some of the thoughtfully provide cutlery.
Upon arrival at Coolangatta, there was no standing around in a cramped aisle trying to wiggle my luggage out of the overhead locker without it landing on head of the person next to me. The cabin attendant was right there to ensure my little Kmart suitcase moved safely and swiftly from locker to floor, and then, I was the first person off the plane.
The verdict: Lounge: Free, safe, comfortable, but slightly on the clinical side. Seat: Wonderful. I hope I can one day travel in this kind of seat on a longer flight. Service: Highly polished just like the cutlery. Value: Yes, for the $14.99 I paid, that was a pretty good deal.
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Nicki Ranger is a freelance writer currently based in Perth, Western Australia.
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